To coincide with the publication of World Film Locations: Beijing from Intellect Books, co-editor John Berra reviews six Beijing-set films to illustrate how China’s ever-changing capital city has inspired commercial and independent filmmakers alike, from the 1990s to today.
I Love Beijing is the third part of Ning Ying’s celebrated ‘Beijing Trilogy’, following For Fun (1993) and On the Beat (1995). Each film examines an aspect of daily life in China’s capital city through characters who have regular interaction with other urban dwellers. For Fun concerns a group of senior citizens who form an opera club in order to restore their sense of purpose in a society that no longer seems to offer a role to anyone who has reached retirement age. On the Beat observes the routine of a police unit as they deal with problems in their zone, but mostly complete a lot of paper work. While the aging residents of For Fun wander the communal areas on foot, and the public servants of On the Beat ride around on bicycles, the central character of I Love Beijing enjoys greater mobility as he speeds through the city’s various districts in his taxi. It’s an appropriate perspective from which to examine Beijing as its roars into the new millennium, with the mobility of the taxi driver reflecting not only the exhilarating rush of free enterprise, but the many directions in which young people can travel in pursuit of success. Shot in cinéma vérité style with non-professional actors, I Love Beijing takes the viewer on a tour of a city that is increasingly unknowable due to extensive redevelopment, with the perpetually half-finished urban landscape leaving its inhabitants emotionally adrift, despite the copious escapist pleasures offered by the modernised metropolis.
The film starts with all modes of transport – cars, bicycles, and pedestrians – converging at a busy intersection, while the sounds of various media outlets overlap on the soundtrack. We then meet Desi (Yu Lei), our guide to this organised chaos, who is in the process of divorcing his wife of just a few months, a migrant who has been living with Desi’s mother while he prefers to spend time behind the wheel, rarely going home between shifts. Many of his fares are actually private clients, ranging from party-hoppers to underworld players, providing Desi with such benefits as access to Beijing’s late night club scene. Desi needs to pull in extra money because he has been paying the rent on an apartment for his mistress, also a migrant, who works as a waitress, yet the taxi driver has also lost interest in her and rarely checks in despite providing financial support. He picks up a librarian with the promise of a cheap ride: she puts on an intellectual front with her insistence that it is better to spend the day around books than driving, but is actually frustrated with her life on the fringes of academia. Desi’s straight-talking manner and attitude that money is meant to be spent wins her over but, as expected, does not hang around for the morning after. The taxi driver thinks that he is ahead of the curve, but not every business decision or romantic liaison goes to plan, forcing the reluctant readjustment of priorities.
Working around the clock enables Desi to lead a playboy lifestyle, but the regulations of his line of work are shifting: fines are being imposed on drivers who run red lights, as is a requirement that anyone who has a vehicle that was manufactured before 1995 must buy an up-to-date model or lose their professional license. Older drivers discuss how the position of the taxi driver has shifted in Chinese society over the past ten years, as the service they offer is no longer special since ‘big spenders’ now own cars and women expect to see the city through the windows of a Mercedes. As the taxi business becomes more legitimized, and drivers must accept they are company men rather than free agents, Desi tries to maintain his independence through sheer attitude, but is up against the restructuring of a sector that is intertwined with the city’s redevelopment. Ning does not exhibit a direct stance towards demolition: there is rubble everywhere as old neighbourhoods are in the process of being replaced by modern apartment buildings, but rather than yearning for the rapidly vanishing old Beijing, the film captures the energy of a city in transition with Desi’s car stereo providing the eclectic soundtrack. ‘What the hell is this place?’ Desi asks another driver when dropping a gang of thugs off outside a new residential block. ‘I don’t know’, replies his new acquaintance. Beijing and Desi may be works in progress, but Ning’s film is a fully-realised conclusion to an essential trilogy.